183/929 Make No Mistake About It. Actually — Do. Devarim 30.

We’re formally introduced to the concept of Teshuva in chapter 30, but the Midrash suggests that its creation predates the world. What this strange statement tells us is, that in rabbinic eyes, mistakes are to be expected, and the way to fix them was built into the system from the planning stages. In other words, it’s no mistake that people make mistakes. The dynamic movement of sinning and repenting, distancing ourselves from God and returning to Him, is all part of God’s ideal plan for creation.

The Talmud (Yoma 86a) presents two models of repentance: repentance from love and repentance from fear. Rav Soloveitchik explains: there is repentance in which a person needs to erase their past, to recreate themselves, in order to move on. While this is effective, and sometimes necessary, it’s also psychologically destructive and wasteful. It’s a Teshuva of fear — fear of oneself, of what one was, of returning to the old ways. The more desirable type of Teshuva is a repentance which elevates sin, rather than obliterating it. This is repentance which uses the raw powers of one’s soul, instead of denying them. It is a Teshuva that can only be animated by love; only if a person truly loves and accepts themselves, are they willing to confront the dark aspects of their personality and to see the way that Godliness can be found there as well.

The Jewish year begins on Rosh Hashana, but the new year of Jewish education begins now, in the month of Elul, while we read these chapters in the Torah. There is no more fitting message to parents, teachers and students beginning a new year of learning. “A person can only learn Torah if he has stumbled with them first.” The ideal, a priori plan for learning involves making mistakes, celebrating them, and using them as a way to learn more. As my pedadogical role model, Ms. Frizzle, says: “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy, do teshuva.”

(Ok, I added the ‘do teshuva’ part.)

184/929. I Sin Therefore I Am. Devarim 31.

The idea of the inevitability of sin can sweeten some of the most bitter, even cruel verses in the Torah. It’s tragic enough that Moshe, without whom there would be no Jewish people to enter the land, is denied entry into the land even after repeated entreaties. But when God begins to tell him, in chapter 31, of the ways that the Jewish people will rebel in his absence, rejecting everything he is trying so hard to pass on to them, it seems to cross the line from tragic into torture. Moshe was obviously anxious about the possibility that this would happen. Did God need to be so blunt?

But God’s words are actually a comfort and an antidote for his anxiety. Satan’s gravest, most dangerous line of argument is: give up. You’re too far gone. There’s no use trying. Whatever type of self improvement plan a person will try, from a new diet to a new religious lifestyle, that voice will pop up after that first, or second, or third inevitable mistake. It’s the voice which tells us that every sin is of ultimate significance, that if we’ve fallen once, we’ll fall again, so what’s the use trying.

What God tells Moshe is just the opposite. Don’t worry. The Jewish people will sin. I guarantee it. And the sin will have consequences. But it won’t mean the end of the relationship; it’s a natural part of the relationship.

The rabbis takes it one step further in the Talmud. Taking the verse “Behold, you will rest with your ancestors, and this nation will rise and stray after the strange gods of the land,” they intentionally misread the syntax to yield “Behold you will rest with your ancestors and rise,” thus proving the idea of the future resurrection of the dead.  Perhaps there is something deeper at play here than just a playful reading. Perhaps it is the inevitability of future sin that suggests that, just as God is eternal, humanity’s dance to and from God can have no absolute end, and so even those who exited the dance long ago must at some future point rejoin it. Sin is not just a natural component of human existence; it is the justification for continued human existence.

185/929 Sin Song. Devarim 32.

If sin justifies human existence by reminding us of our inherent imperfection and our mission to constantly improve ourselves, then the very worst sin of all is sin’s denial. The delusions of perfection which come with success and comfort corrupt our understanding of the God who chose imperfect humanity as His object of love.

Nothing mirrors  God’s choosing in our own life like the love of a parent for their infant child. It’s not a love that’s earned, and it’s not a love in spite of the child’s  frailty, but because of it. This is the imagery that chapter 32 draws on repeatedly- God as our father and maker, who doted over us like an eagle over her chicks. But inevitably, the helplessness of the child is replaced by the adolescent sense of invincibility. “You’ve grown fat, become thick, covered yourself” At this stage, all of the rules that used to be accepted as ways to protect and nurture the frail child, are experienced by the teenager as oppressive, angry strictures. Feeling that he no longer needs all of the rules, the teenager rebels. This is the dynamic described in chapter 32. “You made me jealous with a non-god.” It’s a classic teenage rebellion without a cause, a rebellion of “anti”.

What can be done to prevent this situation? Moshe provides the key in his very last words of instruction in the Torah. “It is not an empty thing for you (literally: from you).” The Midrash offers two important explanations. On the one hand, if it is empty, it is from you. On the flipside, there is nothing in the Torah, as banal as it seems, that can’t be infused with meaning and significance. If the Torah’s laws remain paternalistic, instructions for a meaningful life handed from the top down, they will be rejected when a person reaches the stage in which he feels (mistakenly) that he no longer has a need for instructions. But we are given ownership over the Torah. We are told that its meaningfulness and significance is in our hands, and in this way “you will live a long life on the land that you are crossing the Jordan to inherit”.

Thus, the Torah ends with a teaching the rabbis began to develop in its very first chapter, with the creation of man. The Torah was not given to the angels. It was given to imperfect, sinful, limited, striving, ever improving humankind, to learn, to understand, to make their own. There could be no more beautiful riff on this ancient song than the one produced over the last 8 months with the 929 project.

Chazak Chazak VeNitchazek!